Not quite two months into the NASCAR season and the sport has been thrust into the spotlight with numerous issues from driver safety to domestic violence.
The Observer on Saturday sat down with Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s executive vice president and chief racing development officer, to talk about how NASCAR has handled these issues, how the fan experience soon will be transformed and the sport’s commitment to the Charlotte area.
Last season, O’Donnell assumed leadership of NASCAR’s Research & Development Center and oversees all operations in Concord, including racing development and innovation as well as competition. A native of Flemington, N.J., he is a graduate of Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., and now lives in Charlotte.
Q: NASCAR adapted another aerodynamic rules package to start the 2015 Sprint Cup season, which included lower horsepower and downforce. How would you assess the racing and the rule package’s effects thus far?
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A. I think the racing has been solid, but I think it’s still too early to give the rules package an assessment. We’re still working through some things, including the tires matched to the racing package. We’ve been getting a lot of feedback from the teams, obviously, and are in constant dialogue with them. Several teams have adjusted very well and are on top of their games and some smaller teams have taken a little bit more time to adapt. It will take time. I will probably compare it to last year where you saw the racing continuously improve throughout the year. It’s still too early to tell, but I can tell you our focus as we go forward will be at looking at the corner speeds. We’re going to try to slow them down if we can.
Getting the tires matched to the rules package is probably taking longer than people think. The good news is the dialogue with Goodyear is great. We’ve got to match the tires, the horsepower and the aero package. We need it all to match up because it all works together. We’re a long way there but we still have work to do.
Q: Kyle Busch’s injuries in the Xfinity Series race at Daytona once again thrust safety to the forefront as the track and NASCAR took immediate steps to rectify the lack of SAFER barriers in some areas at Daytona and changes have been announced at other tracks as well. How would you assess NASCAR’s response to the incident and are more changes coming in the weeks and months ahead?
A. If you look back at what we said when that happened, there is no greater priority for us and that hasn’t changed. We’ve met with representatives of every single track on the circuit. We’ve seen some of the shorter-term investments such as tire barriers. You’ll see a continual investment in the SAFER barriers and tire barriers. The tracks recognize this is the highest priority. They’ve taken action immediately and that progress is continuing. It’s something that goes beyond just the barriers, the safety priority will continue with everything that we do.
I think the dialogue with the drivers has been key and we’ve been very open about what our expectations are. Kyle Busch came in one day last week and we walked him through his car (from Daytona) and walked him through the crash. We took him through our plan as far as where we hope to be. Again, certainly we wished that had never happened, but we’ve got to look forward as a group and move as quickly as we can.
Q: Looking back at NASCAR’s response to Kurt Busch’s involvement in a domestic violence case – which included his suspension, reinstatement and continued probation – how do you think NASCAR’s policies stack up to other professional sports in this area and do you think you have found the right balance in your policy?
A. On other leagues, I can’t really speak to their policies – they are all different. I think our policy is clear, it’s a no-tolerance policy when it comes to domestic violence. That’s where we stand and we’re very clear. The actions we took in respect to Kurt certainly showed that. The one thing in these situations is that every situation is going to be different so we have to evaluate each individual case and we did that in this case.
Q: International Speedway Corp. has invested a lot of money into transforming Daytona International Speedway into a top-of-the-line racing facility in terms of technology and fan amenities. How long before other tracks will do the same and is there a role for NASCAR to play to encourage or assist tracks in upgrading their facilities?
A. I think Daytona what it’s doing is a game-changer and not just for our facilities, but it will put them at the top of all sports and for us, that’s huge. All the amenities they are putting in place, including the social areas, is going to be big. You come here to Texas and you have the biggest HDTV screen in all of sports and that’s a big deal for the sport, which sometimes goes unrecognized. Going forward, the story that tends to get written is the track is condensing some of its seats. Part of that is also changing the landscape of the facility. There are social areas where people want to interact with others and not just come and show up and sit in a traditional seat.
This is an area where NASCAR can play a role. We provide a lot of data to tracks and have dialogue about trends we see in the sport - what’s working, what’s not. We know fans are embracing technology, especially many younger fans. So we look at what can we do with the race cars, too. Something like a digital dashboard looks good on TV but it’s also a way to put technology into the fans’ hands immediately.
Q: Over the past several years NASCAR has reallocated and relocated a lot of resources to the Charlotte area, including your own move. How do you think that has worked out and in what ways has it paid dividends for the sport in general?
A. First of all, I have loved my move to Charlotte. We bought a place in Dilworth. It’s a great area and great city. Here’s an example – last week I bet I met with eight different race teams at their respective shops. Now, there has always been dialogue with the teams, but the ability to go and sit down with a team owner for three hours and discuss the issues affecting the sport today and into the future has been huge for us. It’s made it much easier to address not only what we want to do in 2016 but gives us the chance to look at what we want to do in 2020 because we all need to work together on that. It’s also good to be able to grab a dinner with a Jeff Gordon or Denny Hamlin one night during the week. Better communication is always important.
Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter